Read CHAPTER XV of A Roman Singer, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on

As it often happens that, in affairs of importance, the minor events which lead to the ultimate result seem to occur rapidly, and almost to stumble over each other in their haste, it came to pass that on the very evening after I had got Nino’s letter I was sent for by the contessina.

When the man came to call me I was sitting in my room, from force of habit, though the long delay had made the possibility of the meeting seem shadowy.  I was hoping that Nino might arrive in time to go in my place, for I knew that he would not be many hours behind his letter.  He would assuredly travel as fast as he could, and if he had understood my directions he was not likely to go astray.  But in spite of my hopes the summons came too soon, and I was obliged to go myself.

Picture to yourselves how I looked and how I felt:  a sober old professor, as I am, stealing out in the night, all wrapped in a cloak as dark and shabby as any conspirator’s; armed with a good knife in case of accidents; with beating heart, and doubting whether I could use my weapon if needful; and guided to the place of tryst by the confidential servant of a beautiful and unhappy maiden.  I have often laughed since then at the figure I must have cut, but I did not laugh at the time.  It was a very serious affair.

We skirted the base of the huge rock on which the castle is built, and reached the small, low door without meeting anyone.  It was a moonlit night, ­the Paschal moon was nearly at the full, ­and the whiteness made each separate iron rivet in the door stand out distinct, thrown into relief by its own small shadow on the seamed oak.  My guide produced a ponderous key, which screamed hoarsely in the lock under the pressure of his two hands, as he made it turn in the rusty wards.  The noise frightened me, but the man laughed, and said they could not hear where they sat, far up in the vaulted chamber, telling long stories over their wine.  We entered, and I had to mount a little way up the dark steps to give him room to close the door behind us, by which we were left in total darkness.  I confess I was very nervous and frightened until he lighted a taper which he had brought and made enough light to show the way.  The stairs were winding and steep, but perfectly dry, and when he had passed me I followed him, feeling that at all events the door behind was closed, and there was someone between me and any danger ahead.

The man paused in front of me, and when I had rounded the corner of the winding steps I saw that a brighter light than ours shone from a small doorway opening directly upon the stair.  In another moment I was in the presence of Hedwig von Lira.  The man retired and left us.

She stood, dressed in black, against the rough stone; the strong light of a gorgeous gilt lamp that was placed on the floor streamed upward on her white face.  Her eyes caught the brightness, and seemed to burn like deep, dark gems, though they appeared so blue in the day.  She looked like a person tortured past endurance, so that the pain of the soul has taken shape, and the agony of the heart has assumed substance.  Tears shed had hollowed the marble cheeks, and the stronger suffering that cannot weep had chiselled out great shadows beneath her brows.  Her thin clasped hands seemed wringing each other into strange shapes of woe; and though she stood erect as a slender pillar against the black rock, it was rather from the courage of despair than because she was straight and tall by her own nature.

I bent low before her, awed by the extremity of suffering I saw.

“Are you Signor Grandi?” she asked, in a low and trembling voice.

“Most humbly at your service, Signora Contessina,” I answered.  She put out her hand to me, and then drew it back quickly, with a timid nervous look as I moved to take it.

“I never saw you,” she said, “but I feel as though you must be a friend ­” She paused.

“Indeed, signorina, I am here for that reason,” said I, trying to speak stoutly, and so to inspire her with some courage.  “Tell me how I can best serve you; and though I am not young and strong like Nino Cardegna, my boy, I am not so old but that I can do whatsoever you command.”

“Then in God’s name, save me from this ­” But again the sentence died upon her lips, and she glanced anxiously at the door.  I reflected that if anyone came we should be caught like mice in a trap, and I made as though I would look out upon the stairs.  But she stopped me.

“I am foolishly frightened,” she said.  “That man is faithful, and will keep watch.”  I thought it time to discover her wishes.

“Signorina,” said I, “you ask me to save you.  You do not say from what.  I can at least tell you that Nino Cardegna will be here in a day or two ­” At this sudden news she gave a little cry, and the blood rushed to her cheeks, in strange contrast with their deathly whiteness.  She seemed on the point of speaking, but checked herself, and her eyes, that had looked me through and through a moment before, drooped modestly under my glance.

“Is it possible?” she said at last, in a changed voice.  “Yes, if he comes, I think the Signor Cardegna will help me.”

“Madam,” I said, very courteously, for I guessed her embarrassment, “I can assure you that my boy is ready to give you his life in return for the kindness he received at your hands in Rome.”  She looked up, smiling through her tears, for the sudden happiness had moistened the drooping lids.

“You are very kind, Signor Grandi.  Signor Cardegna is, I believe, a good friend of mine.  You say he will be here?”

“I received a letter from him to-day, dated in Rome, in which he tells me that he will start immediately.  He may be here to-morrow morning,” I answered.  Hedwig had regained her composure, perhaps because she was reassured by my manner of speaking about Nino.  I, however, was anxious to hear from her own lips some confirmation of my suspicions concerning the baron.  “I have no doubt,” I continued presently, “that, with your consent, my boy will be able to deliver you from this prison ­” I used the word at a venture.  Had Hedwig suffered less, and been less cruelly tormented, she would have rebuked me for the expression.  But I recalled her to her position, and her self-control gave way at once.

“Oh, you are right to call it a prison!” she cried.  “It is as much a prison as this chamber hewed out of the rock, where so many a wretch has languished hopelessly; a prison from which I am daily taken out into the sweet sun, to breathe and be kept alive, and to taste how joyful a thing liberty must be!  And every day I am brought back, and told that I may be free if I will consent.  Consent!  God of mercy!” she moaned, in a sudden tempest of passionate despair.  “Consent ever to belong, body ­and soul ­to be touched, polluted, desecrated, by that inhuman monster; sold to him, to a creature without pity, whose heart is a toad, a venomous creeping thing ­sold to him for this life, and to the vengeance of God hereafter; bartered, traded, and told that I am so vile and lost that the very price I am offered is an honour to me, being so much more than my value.”  She came toward me as she spoke, and the passionate, unshed tears that were in her seemed to choke her, so that her voice was hoarse.

“And for what ­for what?” she cried, wildly, seizing my arm and looking fiercely into my eyes.  “For what, I say?  Because I gave him a poor rose; because I let him see me once; because I loved his sweet voice; because ­because ­I love him, and will love him, and do love him, though I die!”

The girl was in a frenzy of passion and love and hate all together, and did not count her words.  The white heat of her tormented soul blazed from her pale face and illuminated every feature, though she was turned from the light, and she shook my arm in her grasp so that it pained me.  The marble was burnt in the fire, and must consume itself to ashes.  The white and calm statue was become a pillar of flame in the life-and-death struggle for love.  I strove to speak, but could not, for fear and wonder tied my tongue.  And indeed she gave me short time to think.

“I tell you I love him, as he loves me,” she continued, her voice trembling upon the rising cadence, “with all my whole being.  Tell him so.  Tell him he must save me, and that only he can:  that for his sake I am tortured, and scorned, and disgraced, and sold; my body thrown to dogs, and worse than dogs; my soul given over to devils that tempt me to kill and be free, ­by my own father, for his sake.  Tell him that these hands he kissed are wasted with wringing small pains from each other, but the greater pain drives them to do worse.  Tell him, good sir, ­you are kind and love him, but not as I do, ­tell him that this golden hair of mine has streaks of white in these terrible two months; that these eyes he loved are worn with weeping.  Tell him ­”

But her voice failed her, and she staggered against the wall, hiding her face in her hands.  A trembling breath, a struggle, a great wild sob:  the long-sealed tears were free, and flowed fast over her hands.

“Oh, no, no,” she moaned, “you must not tell him that.”  Then choking down her agony she turned to me:  “You will not ­you cannot tell him of this?  I am weak, ill, but I will bear everything for ­for him.”  The great effort exhausted her, and I think that if I had not caught her she would have fallen, and she would have hurt herself very much on the stone floor.  But she is young, and I am not very strong, and could not have held her up.  So I knelt, letting her weight come on my shoulder.

The fair head rested pathetically against my old coat, and I tried to wipe away her tears with her long golden hair; for I had not any handkerchief.  But very soon I could not see to do it.  I was crying myself, for the pity of it all, and my tears trickled down and fell on her thin hands.  And so I kneeled, and she half lay and half sat upon the floor, with her head resting on my shoulder; I was glad then to be old, for I felt that I had a right to comfort her.

Presently she looked up into my face, and saw that I was weeping.  She did not speak, but found her little lace handkerchief, and pressed it to my eyes, ­first to one, and then to the other; and the action brought a faint maidenly flush to her cheeks through all her own sorrow.  A daughter could not have done it more kindly.

“My child,” I said at last, “be sure that your secret is safe in me.  But there is one coming with whom it will be safer.”

“You are so good,” she said, and her head sank once more, and nestled against my breast, so that I could just see the bright tresses through my gray beard.  But in a moment she looked up again, and made as though she would rise; and then I helped her, and we both stood on our feet.

Poor, beautiful, tormented Hedwig!  I can remember it, and call up the whole picture to my mind.  She still leaned on my arm, and looked up to me, her loosened hair all falling back upon her shoulders; and the wonderful lines of her delicate face seemed made ethereal and angelic by her sufferings.

“My dear,” I said at last, smoothing her golden hair with my hand, as I thought her mother would do, if she had a mother, ­“my dear, your interview with my boy may be a short one, and you may not have an opportunity to meet at all for days.  If it does not pain you too much, will you tell me just what your troubles are here?  I can then tell him, so that you can save time when you are together.”  She gazed into my eyes for some seconds, as though to prove me, whether I were a true man.

“I think you are right,” she answered, taking courage.  “I will tell you in two words.  My father treats me as though I had committed some unpardonable crime, which I do not at all understand.  He says my reputation is ruined.  Surely that is not true?” She asked the question so innocently and simply that I smiled.

“No, my dear, it is not true,” I replied.

“I am sure I cannot understand it,” she continued; “but he says so, and insists that my only course is to accept what he calls the advantageous offer which has suddenly presented itself.  He insists very roughly.”  She shuddered slightly.  “He gives me no peace.  It appears that this creature wrote to ask my father for my hand when we left Rome two months ago.  The letter was forwarded, and my father began at once to tell me that I must make up my mind to the marriage.  At first I used to be very angry; but seeing we were alone, I finally determined to seem indifferent, and not to answer him when he talked about it.  Then he thought my spirit was broken, and he sent for Baron Benoni, who arrived a fortnight ago.  Do you know him, Signor Grandi?  You came to see him, so I suppose you do?” The same look of hatred and loathing came to her face that I had noticed when Benoni and I met her in the hall.

“Yes, I know him.  He is a traitor, a villain,” I said earnestly.

“Yes, and more than that.  But he is a great banker in Russia ­”

“A banker?” I asked, in some astonishment.

“Did you not know it?  Yes; he is very rich, and has a great firm, if that is the name for it.  But he wanders incessantly, and his partners take care of his affairs.  My father says that I shall marry him or end my days here.”

“Unless you end his for him!” I cried, indignantly.

“Hush!” said she, and trembled violently.  “He is my father, you know,” she added, with sudden earnestness.

“But you cannot consent ­” I began.

“Consent!” she interrupted with a bitter laugh.  “I will die rather than consent.”

“I mean, you cannot consent to be shut up in this valley for ever.”

“If need be, I will,” she said, in a low voice.

“There is no need,” I whispered.

“You do not know my father.  He is a man of iron,” she answered, sorrowfully.

“You do not know my boy.  He is a man of his word,” I replied.

We were both silent, for we both knew very well what our words meant.  From such a situation there could be but one escape.

“I think you ought to go now,” she said, at last.  “If I were missed it would all be over.  But I am sorry to let you go, you are so kind.  How can you let me know ­” She stopped, with a blush, and stooped to raise the lamp from the floor.

“Can you not meet here to-morrow night, when they are asleep?” I suggested, knowing what her question would have been.

“I will send the same man to you to-morrow evening, and let you know what is possible,” she said.  “And now I will show you the way out of my house,” she added, with the first faint shadow of a smile.  With the slight gilt lamp in her hand she went out of the little rock chamber, listened a moment, and began to descend the steps.

“But the key?” I asked, following her light footsteps with my heavier tread.

“It is in the door,” she answered, and went on.

When we reached the bottom we found it as she had said.  The servant had left the key on the inside, and with some difficulty I turned the bolts.  We stood for one moment in the narrow space, where the lowest step was set close against the door.  Her eyes flashed strangely in the lamplight.

“How easy it would be!” I said, understanding her glance.  She nodded, and pushed me gently out into the street; and I closed the door, and leaned against it as she locked it.

“Good-night,” she said from the other side, and I put my mouth to the key-hole.  “Good-night.  Courage!” I answered.  I could hear her lightly mounting the stone steps.  It seemed wonderful to me that she should not be afraid to go back alone.  But love makes people brave.

The moon had risen higher during the time I had been within, and I strolled round the base of the rock, lighting a cigar as I went.  The terrible adventure I had dreaded was now over, and I felt myself again.  In truth, it was a curious thing to happen to a man of my years and my habits; but the things I had heard had so much absorbed my attention that, while the interview lasted, I had forgotten the strange manner of the meeting.  I was horrified at the extent of the girl’s misery, more felt than understood from her brief description and passionate outbreaks.  There is no mistaking the strength of a suffering that wastes and consumes the mortal part of us as wax melts at the fire.

And Benoni ­the villain!  He had written to ask Hedwig in marriage before he came to see me in Rome.  There was something fiendish in his almost inviting me to see his triumph, and I cursed him as I kicked the loose stones in the road with my heavy shoes.  So he was a banker, as well as a musician and a wanderer.  Who would have thought it?

“One thing is clear,” I said to myself, as I went to bed:  “unless something is done immediately, that poor girl will consume herself and die.”  And all that night her poor thin face and staring eyes were in my dreams; so that I woke up several times, thinking I was trying to comfort her, and could not.  But toward dawn I felt sure that Nino was coming, and that all would be well.

I was chatting with my old landlady the next morning, and smoking to pass the time, when there was suddenly a commotion in the street.  That is to say, someone was arriving, and all the little children turned out in a body to run after the stranger, while the old women came to their doors with their knitting, and squinted under the bright sunlight to see what was the matter.

It was Nino, of course ­my own boy, riding on a stout mule, with a countryman by his side upon another.  He was dressed in plain gray clothes, and wore high boots.  His great felt hat drooped half across his face, and hid his eyes from me; but there was no mistaking the stern square jaw and the close even lips.  I ran toward him and called him by name.  In a moment he was off his beast, and we embraced tenderly.

“Have you seen her?” were the first words he spoke.  I nodded, and hurried him into the house where I lived, fearful lest some mischance should bring the party from the castle riding by.  He sent his man with the mules to the inn, and when we were at last alone together he threw himself into a chair, and took off his hat.

Nino too was changed in the two months that had passed.  He had travelled far, had sung lustily, and had been applauded to the skies; and he had seen the great world.  But there was more than all that in his face.  There were lines of care and of thought that well became his masculine features.  There was a something in his look that told of a set purpose, and there was a light in his dark eyes that spoke a world of warning to anyone who might dare to thwart him.  But he seemed thinner, and his cheeks were as white as the paper I write on.

Some men are born masters, and never once relax the authority they exercise on those around them.  Nino has always commanded me, as he seems to command everybody else, in the fewest words possible.  But he is so true and honest and brave that all who know him love him; and that is more than can be said for most artists.  As he sat in his chair, hesitating what question to ask first, or waiting for me to speak, I thought that if Hedwig von Lira had searched the whole world for a man able to deliver her from her cruel father and from her hated lover she could have chosen no better champion than Nino Cardegna, the singer.  Of course you all say that I am infatuated with the boy, and that I helped him to do a reckless thing, simply because I was blinded by my fondness.  But I maintain, and shall ever hold, that Nino did right in this matter, and I am telling my story merely in order that honest men may judge.

He sat by the window, and the sun poured through the panes upon his curling hair, his travelling dress, and his dusty boots.  The woman of the house brought in some wine and water; but he only sipped the water, and would not touch the wine.

“You are a dear, kind father to me,” he said, putting out his hand from where he sat, “and before we talk I must tell you how much I thank you.”  Simple words, as they look on paper; but another man could not have said so much in an hour as his voice and look told me.